The Supreme Court has set out to re-examine a section of the IPC whose constitutionality has been upheld thrice — in 1954, 1985 and 1988 — despite appeals. Section 497, which deals with adultery, reads: “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”
The apex court is viewing the appeal against this section from the perspective of gender equality and has raised the question whether the male, in an adulterous relationship, is alone to be punishable in such cases. But a decision in this context will undoubtedly be difficult for the court, despite changes in the cultural milieu in the country. Section 497 views males in such relations alone as the seducers and females as the victims. The approach of the law towards any matter involving women has been protective and is still justifiably so in many cases. But women are undoubtedly a little more independent economically today than they ever were and are somewhat succeeding in some walks of life. Marriage, undoubtedly, is not ownership when conjoined with economic independence.
Let us take a quick look into the socio-religious history of India and Hindooism. Start with Draupadi, the lady who was forced to live her life with five self righteous men under the pretext that their mother asked them to share whatever one of them had fetched. The epic says Kunti was unaware her son had fetched a woman: The first known religious sanction of parents deciding the marital affairs of their children. Then the next part is that these great and perfect divinely characters go ahead and use her as a bet in a gamble that they promptly lose. The disrobing of Draupadi, the wily and godly acts of Krsna and the glorification of the Mahabharat war, all mythology, still remains high in the minds of the average Indian Hindoo. Similarly, the Maryada Purusottam King Rama and his wife Ma Sita also have a story we all know. Incapable of protecting his wife from an abductor, Lord Rama uses every rule in the book, and some out of it, to defeat Ravana of Lanka. That Ravana did not even touch Sita showed the greatness of Ravana and not of Rama. And after all that, Lord Rama throws Ma Sita out of her legal home and forces her to do the agnipariksha which demonstrates the mindset inherited by most of us Hindoo Indians. Critics may say that, instead, Ma Sita ought to have punished Lord Rama for endangering her life and depriving Urmi, the wife of Lakshman, the company and security of her husband for 14 long years. Back these beliefs up with practices such as Sati pratha and you get a complete picture of the thinking process of the modern day Indian. Not only Hindoos, the Moslems’ attitude to women is also globally derided.
With this kind of a socio-religious-political backdrop stretching back to centuries of mythology woven around our psyche, it is important we consciously reverse the trend. With the political leadership of India having completely destroyed the social and cultural leadership, the onus to set things right has been dumped on the Indian judiciary. Like it or not, our legal system has to be uneven and must tilt in favor of women. To the point of seeming unreasonable. This is required for balancing the long-standing biases in the minds of the Indian male.
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